Calling Mario Pašalić a “former” Chelsea player may be a bit too generous to the concept of a “Chelsea player”. He may have only left the club officially last month, but for the past couple years, it was only a matter of time before made his stay at Bergamo-based Atalanta something more permanent than a loan with a buy-option. And before that, he was never really close to joining the first-team ever since arriving from Hajduk Split as a teenager.
But we’ll call him an ex-Chelsea player since he did spend six years on the club’s books before Atalanta exercised their €15m (!) buyout clause at long last. And today, he showed the entire world what a bargain that was, even as this year’s Champions League Cinderella story died a gruesome death in Portugal.
Atalanta were on track for a famous win over PSG, but two goals in two minutes in added-on time turned the match around, with the Parisians advancing to the semifinals for the first time since 1994. La Dea, everyone’s favorite second team this season, took the first-half lead thanks to Pašalić’s sweet finish, but eventually ran out of steam and ran out of luck. PSG were the “deserved” winners, sure, but not the “feel-good” ones.
Pašalić had been withdrawn by then, but his journey at Atalanta can now truly begin.
Whenever such performances happen, the obvious and rueful questions start getting asked. Hindsight is of course 20/20, but Chelsea have (had?) made a habit of discarding promising talent far too early. Consider that between 2011 and 2014, Pašalić was just one of several young players added to the team, most of whom have gone on to find tremendous success elsewhere instead.
Thibaut Courtois, Kurt Zouma, and Andreas Christensen can be considered wins, but that record looks far worse when we consider that the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Thorgan Hazard, Mohamed Salah, and Bertrand Traoré have all slipped through our fingers — and that’s before we consider mid-level talent, such as Christian Atsu, Kenneth Omeruo, Patrick Bamford, Kasey Palmer, or any of “our own” Academy youth.
Pašalić’s case does have a better excuse than most of the aforementioned ones, since he was also restricted by the work permit system. Croatia may have joined the EU in 2013, but Croatian nationals were still required to apply for work permits in the UK until 2018. Since Pašalić was a very cheap signing (£2-3m) and he wasn’t capped for Croatia regularly until 2017, he was unable to secure a work permit at least initially (nor did we seem to try very hard to get him one).
His best, last chance to really make it happen would’ve been that summer of 2018, when he did join the team for the preseason trip to Australia but was sent back on loan shortly afterwards. He landed in Atalanta, and the rest, as they say, is history.
That he’s playing this well is hardly a surprise. He had found success in four different top flight teams in four different leagues in the four prior seasons — Elche (Spain), Monaco (France), Milan (Italy), and Spartak Moscow (Russia) — which, as a loanee, is impressive in and of itself. With the added stability of actually being able to settle down, he’s only gotten better in Bergamo.
Chelsea’s own signings in the meantime, especially in midfield, have left a lot to be desired, which makes situations like Pašalić’s even more frustrating.
But, what’s done is done. The best we can do now is learn from it and make the appropriate changes in development and pathways available to young and talented players at the club — which we are doing to a great extent now. There’s always room for improvement of course!
In any case, best of luck to (Super) Mario and the rest of this fun Atalanta side in next year’s Serie A and Champions League!